While most of you know how active I am on social media, when it comes to my children’s use of technology and consumption of culture, I’m a minimalist. One of our GrokNation readers understood this, and asked me to comment further on the issue of restricting kids’ access to technology. I am thrilled by the opportunity to think and write about this issue, in an attempt to explain my objections to the role that television, pop culture and technology plays in today’s world in general, and of course, in the parenting scene as well.
But before I tackle the subject of technology itself, I want to share with you a piece of information that often stops conversations in their tracks, but also starts whole new conversations: I don’t watch TV. It’s true. I don’t even have cable.
I grew up watching a ton of TV in the 70s and 80s. Somewhere in the early 90s, right around season 2 of “Blossom,” I simply lost the desire to watch TV. I loved “Northern Exposure” but then that show ended and there was nothing that intelligent, thought-provoking and enjoyable for me to switch to. I owned a 9-inch TV in college but rarely turned it on. In grad school, I had my first son, and my ex and I watched “X-Files” and I tried to get into “Fringe” but my time was so scarce because I was constantly breastfeeding a child who would only sleep if I slept next to him. I went to bed early a lot in those years and TV sort of fell away. I did enjoy “Heroes” very much because – as we explored here last week 🙂 – I am a giant nerd. And I faithfully watched “Lost,” amid baby #2 and his high needs issues. Since then, bupkes.
I do, however, own a TV. It’s really big because my ex and I used to watch sports and I like sports on a big screen. I use Apple TV to watch movies, and I’ve only watched one series in maybe seven years (the first half season of “Louie”). Even that I find it hard to commit to watching; I’m out of practice.
Why don’t I watch TV? So many reasons. Here are my top 3.
- TV is a time thief. If I don’t watch TV, it leaves a ton of time to write, make art, catch up with friends, clean my house. When people ask how I get everything done, my answer is “a simple social life and no TV.”
- TV highlights many of my “trigger issues.” Most of the “good” shows these days feature a lot of gore, violence naked women as wallpaper and many other misogynistic plot twists as their mainstay. It’s too frustrating to try and ignore all of the things in so much TV that I find objectionable and damaging.
- There are too many choices. If you believe the hype and advertising, just about every show is “a must-see.” I’m easily overwhelmed by choices at the movie concession stand, the supermarket check-out screen, and my own refrigerator which, typically, isn’t even that full. Too many choices feels like pressure and anxiety and I just can’t handle it.
As for my kids, who are 7 and 10, they have watched cartoons at their dad’s, but it’s just not something we do at my house. They have seen videos on my laptop (they frequently request Michael Jackson videos) and we recently watched Penn & Teller magic on my laptop. And they watch movies every few weeks on our enormous TV screen.
My children have no “screen time” without me. They have a tablet, which was a gift from a close godfather-type man in our lives, and when my father passed away, I inherited his tablet. There are some games they play on those once in a while; none of which are violent and none of which involve me having to pay for anything. They play things like Monument Valley, which I have never played but looks very artistic and nice, Angry Birds and a bunch of other games I’ve never played which I find kind of silly, but fine in small doses.
I have a 1980s video console, which I got as a gift, which they sometimes use to play Frogger. My kids know how to use a cell phone (my ex has an iPhone and I have a Droid so they are “bilingual,” as it were) and they like to look at pictures in my gallery from time to time. I have one game on my phone: a simple matching game.
But overall, technology just isn’t a big part of our lives. I know people will say I’m not preparing them for the real world, but don’t worry: my sons will eventually learn to use a laptop and they will have phones when they are teenagers (I see no need for anyone under the age of 16 to have a phone at this point). It’s all fine. They aren’t mad about it; they complain from time to time but I don’t think I’m a bad mom for being this way.
Here are the things I like about being a very low-technology mom.
- My kids learn to do other things. This is not to say that kids who play video games and watch TV don’t do other things, but my kids simply have more time in their day to learn to do other things to keep themselves busy. They play outside in the yard; they read comic books, they build with LEGO; they wrestle playfully. They help around the house. (They sometimes claim to be bored, but so did I when I was a kid and there was no technology like there is today.)
- Less fighting over who watches what and for how long. I know how hard it is to pull a child away from a TV screen or a computer screen. I’ve seen it even with the movies and videos we watch. TV is a drug. It makes your brain go into a zone that it is hard to pull yourself out of. It’s the opiate of the masses! It’s like the snake charmer of all snake charmers. Because in our home we engage in technology less, we have less technology-related struggles.
- They don’t bug me to buy them things. One of the reasons I don’t want to watch or have my kids watch a lot is that the commercials on TV make me nuts. Advertising is a crazy business. It seems ad companies will do just about anything to get your child to want to buy their product. The lives shown in commercials are meant to be sparkly and attractive to us, and we are being sold a thing in order to get a feeling. More often than not, it’s a hard sell. And there are plenty of children in the world with no toys, much less clean drinking water or shoes or medical care. I don’t need to have constant conversations about what things they want. As my younger one says when they start kvetching at me for something, “Are you going to go straight to talking about kids in Africa?” Pretty much, yes.
- I have faith in my kids. I have faith that my children are going to be ok even if I don’t do what every other parent tells me to do. I’ve been different since before I even had my first son: I was a home birth mom, I planned to breastfeed as long as was mutually desirable, I was vegan, I was holistic. I’ve always been ‘different’ – I research and put a lot into every parenting decision I make, and each of these decisions is an opportunity to believe in myself again. Not engaging in a life ruled by technology helps me remember that I am my kids’ mom, not anyone else’s.
As a neuroscientist, I cringe when I see babies and toddlers with phones and tablets in restaurants and in cars. As a holistic hippy, I cringe because I think communicating, face-to-face, over meals is really important. And if you start a baby or a toddler with that much electronic stimulation as distraction, where do you go from there? As a mom of a pre-teen, I cringe when I see older kids and teenagers out to dinner with their parents on their phones. It makes me sad to see people allowing, and in some cases, even encouraging their kid to not interact with them. There is sufficient evidence that introducing TV and computers too early isn’t great for brain development. There are links to behavior problems and difficulty with attention. (Some sources I’ve found about this are below.)
It’s very hard to cut back on technology use once you start (ask anyone who takes a break for religious reasons, or does a digital detox for any other reason). But I understand that in some circumstances, technology use kind of just happens – and certainly with parenting, it’s more convenient to use it as a parenting tool, so that we don’t have to constantly be needed and nagged at.
So it’s important for all of us to consider both, how technology can enhance our lives and how it distracts us from living fully. I believe that it’s important to mindfully choose when and how technology becomes a part of our lives, especially while parenting.
Now it’s your turn to grok with us:
- Are you totally plugged in every minute of the day, from your smartphone to your TV and beyond?
- What’s your technology philosophy for yourself? For your children, if you have them or are planning to have them?
- How does technology connect you to – or disconnect you from – your friends, family and the world?
On babies’ brain development
- New Brain Research Suggesting TV Watching Produces Bad Changes, Novels Good Ones (SCPR.org)
- Infant TV Guidelines (Wired.com)
- Why to Avoid TV before Age 2 (healthychildren.org)
- TV Watching is Bad for Babies’ Brains (US News)